Hotel Rwanda

(2004) *** 1/2 Pg-13
122 min. United Artists. Director: Terry George. Cast: Don Cheadle, Sophie Okonedo, Joaquin Phoenix, Desmond Dube, David O'Hara.

The money line in Hotel Rwanda goes to Joaquin Phoenix's American cameraman. Hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) expects that international aid must follow footage of Rwandan genocide, but the cameraman responds, "If people see this footage, they'll say, 'Oh my God, that's horrible' and go on eating their dinners." Ten years after the Rwandan disaster, the comment stings while simultaneously celebrating the belated existence of a docudrama about 1994 Rwanda.

Rusesabagina offers a narrative-friendly "in" to the horror and political complexity of the longstanding feud between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. With the goal of cleansing the Tutsi "cockroaches," the Hutu militia armed itself with radio transmissions and machetes; the subsequent eruption of violence resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Tutsis. Terry George's Hotel Rwanda—though simplistic and not graphically bold enough—is tailor-made to expose the masses to a story few wanted to face.

Cheadle makes the most of his first prominent starring role. His Rusesabagina is a crafty wheeler-dealer on behalf of the European-owned Hotel Des Mille Collines, located in Kigali. He knows the persuasive value of a Cohiba cigar and cherishes the orderliness of his hotel. Even after the hotel becomes inundated with refugees, Rusesabagina politely serves entitled American evacuees. Later, he snaps to an underling, "This mess is unaceptable—get housekeeping up here right away." As the life he's built with a Tutsi wife (Sophie Okonedo of Dirty Pretty Things), and their children, disintegrates, Hutu Rusesabagina laments of the power-brokers, "They told me I was one of them...I swallowed it."

Rusesabagina unequivocally expresses the film's emphasis when he says, 'Family is all that matters." The Rusesabaginas repeatedly protect their own and each other, sometimes even by betraying their own mutual trust. As they navigate the larger terrain of the crisis, the Rusesabaginas never forget to inquire about the whereabouts of relatives. If one family's concerns help to give shape to the story, so does Rusesabagina's rebirth as a hero committed to saving as many fellow Rwandans as possible.

George and co-screenwriter Keir Pearson use Nick Nolte's UN colonel, stationed in Kigali, as a hub for the international political response. Standing before a banner reading "Peace Love, and Brotherhood," Colonel Oliver touts a peace accord. When the crisis begins, Oliver promises Rusesabagina protection, but tells the press, "We're here as peacekeepers, not peacemakers." Soon, Oliver huddles over a drink and spits self-hatred. Admitting that international aid is about to pull out of Rwanda for good, he sarcastically explains the attitude of his heard-but-not-seen masters: "You're not even a nigger. You're an African."

Hotel Rwanda functions better as an emotional drama than a history lesson. In the film's most disturbing moments, George depicts the callous abandonment of innocents, as ordered, and the peril of Rusesabagina's family. In one breathtaking scene, Rusesabagina has no option but to offer to buy the lives of his family and neighbors. In another, the Hutu militia targets a UN convoy packed with refugees. Throughout, Rusesabagina plays the power games to which he's accustomed, but with ever-escalating stakes.

Hotel Rwanda succeeds in being inspirational and telling Paul Rusesabagina's extraordinary story. George lacks the finesse of an auteur filmmaker: he employs insistent music and lacks rhythm and visual imagination. The film's final, uplifting line--"There's always room"—comes off as glib in the face of the outsized horror that precedes it. Though never less than dreadful, Hotel Rwanda's depiction of the massacre is mostly squeamish and obscured. The impact of the story and Cheadle's performance reduce these observations to quibbles: Hotel Rwanda remains an important and, at times, profounding moving film.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/1/2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

MGM brings Hotel Rwanda to Blu-ray in a transfer that nicely takes advantage of HD's warmth and depth. The image looks quite lovely, with rich, true color and detail that contibutes to strong dimensionality. Black level and contrast are well defined, and the digital oomph of the transfer never detracts from a film-like presentation. The disc also skillfully converts the aural theatrical experience to home video with a potent yet carefully constructed lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. With no undue distraction, surround channels are actively engaged throughout the film, in ambience, action, and music.

Bonus features kick off with a feature-length audio commentary by director Terry George and Paul Rusesabagina, with a few snippets supplied by musical contributor Wyclef Jean. This is an invaluable opportunity to hear from the real-life subject of the film, as well as the director; though not exactly wall-to-wall, it's an oft-fascinating listen. 

Also on hand is a suite with Selected Scenes Commentary by Don Cheadle, a nice bonus allowing the actor a bit of breathing room to discuss specific moments outside of the talking-head constraints ofg a featurette.

Speaking of featurettes, we get "Message for Peace" (27:56, SD), a behind-the-scenes doc with cast, crew and Rusesabagina.

"Return to Rwanda" (14:32, SD) focuses on Paul and Tatiana Rusesabagina as they return to their homeland and, specifically, the site of the film's action, the Hotel des Milles Collines.

Last up is the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:09, HD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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